In 2016, cremation became the most popular form of body disposal. Generations of people had considered burial as the correct way to dispose of the dead, but the soaring costs of burial and the relaxing of religious standards had made cremation the more popular alternative.
As time has gone on, the funeral industry has gone under scrutiny for its environmental impact. More than 4 million gallons of toxic embalming fluids and 20 million feet of wood are put in the ground in the U.S. every year, while a single cremation emits as much carbon dioxide as a 1,000-mile car trip. Because of ecological concerns, "green" burial techniques have become more popular.
A new technique has been introduced called water burial. Originally meant to process animal carcasses, this process, scientifically referred to as alkaline hydrolysis, or aquamation, involves placing the body in a high pressure tank filled with water and lye. The chamber is heated to 300 degrees, which would eat the blood, skin, muscle, and fat from the body and leave a clean skeleton afterward. The remaining bones could then be crushed to ash and kept by the family.
Alkaline hydrolysis was patented in the U.S. in 1888, and the process hasn’t changed much since then. The body is submerged in a solution of about 95 percent water and 5 percent alkali—usually sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. The liquid is heated and set at a high pressure to avoid boiling, causing the body to shed its proteins and fats. The decomposition creates a coffee-colored liquid, which contains amino acids, peptides, sugars, and salts. That liquid gets flushed down the drain, and treated like any other type of wastewater. Only bones and metal remain.
Such a neat idea, right? Well, a combination of casket makers are trying to keep the technique from gaining traction. Indiana Representative Dick Hamm, who was also a casketmaker, made a speech intended to keep human aquamation illegal in Indiana. “We’re going to put [dead bodies] in acid and just let them dissolve away and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever,” Hamm said, comparing the process to “flushing” a loved one. “I don’t want to send a loved one to be used as fertilizer or sent down the drain to a sewer treatment plant,” Republican John Cebrowski said. His Republican colleague Mike Kappler added that “he didn’t want to drive by a sewage lagoon where a relative’s liquid remains would wind up.”
The Catholic Church of New Hampshire came out against that bill and testified against later efforts to re-legalize aquamation in the state in 2013 and 2014. Each testimony said alkaline hydrolysis “fails to provide New Hampshire Citizens with the reverence and respect they should receive at the end of their lives.”
Philip Olson, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and a death studies expert, sees a deeper value to ecological death care. “The funeral industry has always been about making your body immune to nature, preserving yourself in spite of it,” he said. Processes like aquamation require an acceptance of becoming part of it. “It’s new to think about bodies that way, as a kind of eco-product,” he said. “It demonstrates a shift in how people are thinking about our relationship to the natural world.” If more people respect the planet in death, it bodes well for how they’ll treat it while they’re still alive.